Gideon v. Wainwright

Gideon v. Wainwright
Gideon v. Wainwright
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued January 16, 1963
Decided March 18, 1963
Full case name Clarence E. Gideon v. Louie L. Wainwright, Corrections Director
Citations 372 U.S. 335 (more)
83 S. Ct. 792; 9 L. Ed. 2d 799; 5951 U.S. LEXIS 1942; 23 Ohio Op. 2d 258; 93 A.L.R.2d 733;
Prior history Defendant convicted, Bay County, Florida Circuit Court (1961); habeas petition denied w/o opinion, sub. nom. Gideon v. Cochrane, 135 So. 2d 746 (Fla. 1961)
Subsequent history On remand, 153 So. 2d 299 (Fla. 1963); defendant acquitted, Bay County, Florida Circuit Court (1963)
Argument Oral argument
The Sixth Amendment right to counsel is a fundamental right applied to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause, and requires that indigent criminal defendants be provided counsel at trial. Supreme Court of Florida reversed.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Black, joined by Warren, Brennan, Stewart, White, Goldberg
Concurrence Clark
Concurrence Harlan
Concurrence Douglas
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amends. VI, XIV

Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), is a landmark case in United States Supreme Court history. In the case, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that state courts are required under the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution to provide counsel in criminal cases for defendants who are unable to afford their own attorneys.


Background of the case

Between midnight and 8:00 am on June 3, 1961, a burglary occurred at the Bay Harbor Pool Room in Panama City, Florida. Someone broke a door, smashed the cigarette machine and a record player, and stole money from a register. Later that day, a witness reported that he had seen Clarence Earl Gideon in the poolroom at around 5:30 that morning leaving with a wine bottle and money in his pockets. Based on this accusation alone, the police arrested him and charged him with breaking and entering with intent to commit petty larceny.

The Supreme Court had ruled in Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932), the famous case of the Scottsboro Boys, that the right to counsel was implied in the Bill of Rights and was an essential freedom. In Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455 (1942), the Court had modified this doctrine slightly, ruling that whether or not a lawyer was required depended on the circumstances of each case. Specifically, the Court focused on a case-by-case determination if the lack of representation effected a denial of due process, thus rendering the trial unfair. Over the next twenty years, the Court heard several more cases and in all of them ruled that, in fact, a lawyer was required. Due to the difficulty of proving the high standard of a due process error, nearly all such cases involved the death penalty. This view had not changed by the early 1960s.

Gideon appeared in court and was too poor to afford counsel, whereupon the following conversation took place:

The COURT: Mr. Gideon, I am sorry, but I cannot appoint Counsel to represent you in this case. Under the laws of the State of Florida, the only time the Court can appoint Counsel to represent a Defendant is when that person is charged with a capital offense. I am sorry, but I will have to deny your request to appoint Counsel to defend you in this case.

GIDEON: The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by Counsel.

Gideon was forced, therefore, to act as his own counsel and conduct a defense of himself in court, emphasizing his innocence in the case. Nevertheless, the jury returned a guilty verdict, sentencing him to serve five years in the state prison.

From his prison cell at Florida State Prison, making use of the prison library and writing in pencil on prison stationery, Gideon appealed to the Supreme Court in a suit against the Secretary to the Florida Department of Corrections, H.G. Cochran (who later retired and was replaced with Louie L. Wainwright). He argued that he had been denied counsel and, therefore, his Sixth Amendment rights, as applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, had been violated.

The court assigned him a prominent Washington, D.C. attorney, Abe Fortas of the law firm Arnold Fortas & Porter, a future Supreme Court justice. Bruce Jacob argued the case for respondents.


The decision was announced on 18 March 1963; the opinion of the Court was delivered by Justice Hugo Black. The three concurring opinions were written by Justices Clark, Douglas and Harlan.

In it, the court specifically praised its previous ruling in Powell v. Alabama. Whether or not the Powell v. Alabama decision applied to non-capital cases had sparked heated debate. Betts v. Brady initially decided that, unless there were special circumstances like illiteracy, stupidity or being in an especially complicated trial, there was no need for a court-appointed attorney. Gideon v. Wainwright overruled Betts v. Brady, which had allowed selective application of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel to the states, itself previously binding only in federal cases. Instead, the court held that the right to the assistance of counsel was a fundamental right, essential for a fair trial, thereby emphasizing the procedural safeguards needed for due process of law. In this sense, the meaning is specifically that no one, regardless of wealth, education or class, should be charged with a crime and then be forced to face his accusers in court without the guidance of counsel.

Justice Clark's concurrent opinion stated that the Constitution never says whether a case is capital and non capital, so legal counsel needs to be provided in all cases. Justice Harlan's concurrent opinion stated that the mere existence of a serious criminal charge constituted in itself special circumstances requiring the services of counsel at trial.

The court remanded the case to the Supreme Court of Florida for "further action not inconsistent with this decision." Gideon was then retried with W. Fred Turner serving as his appointed counsel. He was acquitted.

Gideon v. Wainwright was one of a series of Supreme Court decisions that confirmed the right of defendants in criminal proceedings to counsel during trial, on appeal, and in the subsequent cases of Massiah v. United States, 377 U.S. 201 (1964) and Miranda v. Arizona 384 U.S. 436 (1966), even during police interrogation.


About 2000 individuals convicted in Florida alone were freed as a result of the Gideon decision. Gideon himself was not freed; instead, he got a new trial.

Gideon chose W. Fred Turner to be his lawyer for his second trial. The retrial took place on August 5, 1963, five months after the Supreme Court ruling. Turner, during the trial, picked apart the testimony of eyewitness Henry Cook, and in his opening and closing statements suggested the idea that Cook likely had been a lookout for a group of young men who broke in to steal beer, then grabbed the coins while they were at it. Turner also got a statement from the cab driver who took Gideon from Bay Harbor, Florida to a bar in Panama City, Florida, stating that Gideon was carrying neither wine, beer nor Coke when he picked him up, even though Cook testified that he watched Gideon walk from the pool hall to the phone, then wait for a cab. This testimony completely discredited Cook.

The jury acquitted Gideon after one hour of deliberation.

After his acquittal, he resumed his previous way of life and married again some time later. He died of cancer in Fort Lauderdale on January 18, 1972, at age 61. Gideon's family in Missouri accepted his body and laid him to rest in an unmarked grave. A granite headstone was added later.[1]

Impact on courts

The former arrangement of upholding the “fair trial” system, where the state was given a fair amount of latitude in criminal proceedings as long as there were no “shocking departures from fair procedure” was quickly being discarded in favor of a firm set of the "procedural guarantees” stemming from previous constitutional amendments. As a result, when Gideon came before the court they decided to reverse Betts and took upon a system of rules that did not require a case-by-case analysis, but instead created the necessary procedure by its very nature.[1] In this way, the case helped to refine stare decisis: when it should be upheld and what standard should case decisions be tested against precedent to achieve a legitimate practicability in the eyes of the Supreme Court and lower courts.[2] This confusion resulted in several new methods practiced by the Supreme Court when overturning a previous ruling to maintain the “...impersonal qualities of the judicial process...” and keep the sense that legal system is without feeling or prejudice and simply applies justice to those who come before it.[3]

Public defender system

Many changes have been made in the prosecution and legal representation of indigent defendants since the Gideon ruling was handed down in 1963. The decision in Gideon created and then expanded public defenders. Immediately following the decision, Florida required that public defenders must work in all sixteen of the state's circuit courts.[4] The need for more public defenders also led to a need to ensure that the defenders are properly trained in legal defense to allow defendants to receive as fair of a case as possible. Several states and counties followed suit. Washington D.C., for instance, is one such city that has created a training program for their public defenders. Public defenders in District of Columbia must receive rigorous training before they are allowed to represent defendants, and they must continue their training in order to remain current and up-to-date.[5] Another program in the Bronx in New York City requires public defenders to undergo training and provides defendants with “holistic training.”[5] Recently the American Bar Association and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association set minimum training requirements, caseload levels, and experience requirements for its lawyers.[5]

Right to counsel

Among the states, the Doughty v. Maxwell decision demonstrates the differences between how state and federal governments address the waiver standards of the right to counsel. In this case the Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed the decision in Doughty v. Sacks, which held that regardless of Gideon, the defendant waives his or her right to counsel by entering a plea of guilty. Doughty took place in Ohio, which had its own way of interpreting the right to counsel as many states do, including Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Florida. Pennsylvania and West Virginia also deemed that the right to counsel was waived when a plea of guilty was entered. In Florida, at least before Gideon, the defendant had to request the right to counsel; otherwise, it was automatically waived. This varies a great deal with federal law, which has strict guidelines for waiving the right to counsel. Under federal law, the defendant can only waive his or her right to trial if it is clear that the defendant understands the "charges, the consequences of the various pleas, and the availability of counsel."[6]

Modern era

In 2008, The New York Times reported that public defenders' offices around the country were so swamped with cases that they were refusing to take new clients, asserting that if they did so, their existing clients would not be able to receive the time or attention necessary for competent counsel.[7] In September 2008, a judge in Florida ruled that Miami-Dade County public defenders could decline requests for defense from those accused of lesser felonies, saving their time and attention for those clients accused of more serious crimes. Miami public defenders in charge of felony cases now defend 500 cases a year, up from 367, and those who handle misdemeanor trials have upwards of 2,000 cases on their docket. The state appealed the judge's ruling in the Miami-Dade case, because if it is upheld, they will have to contract with private-practice attorneys to provide public defenders to clients, at much greater expense to the state.[7]

Some criminal justice experts believe public defense is deteriorating around the country, which could lead to innocent clients pressured to plead guilty or convicted due to a weak defense. Those who appeal their cases and cite inadequate defense have a hard time getting convictions overturned.[7]

Florida State Senator Victor Crist believes that public defenders' offices should charge their clients fees even if the payments must be delayed. In Missouri, the state defenders' office has been allowed to decline misdemeanor cases or those that will not result in prison time for the defendant.[7]

As stated in Brewer v. Williams, 430 U.S. 387, the rights granted by 6th and 14th Amendments “mean at least that a person is entitled to the help of a lawyer at or after the time that judicial proceedings have been initiated against him, whether by formal charge, preliminary hearing, indictment, information, or arraignment.” 430 U.S. at 398. Brewer goes on to conclude that once adversary proceedings have begun against a defendant, he has a right to legal representation when the government interrogates him. 430 U.S. at 401, citing Massiah v. United States, 377 U.S. 201.

In 1980, the film version of the Gideon vs. Wainwright case was produced. It was known as "Gideon's Trumpet", starring Henry Fonda and Jose Ferrer and directed by Robert E. Collins.

See also


  1. ^ a b Beaney, William M. (1963). "The Right to Counsel: Past, Present, and Future". Virginia Law Review (Virginia Law Review) 49 (6): 1150–1159 [p. 1153]. doi:10.2307/1071050. JSTOR 1071050. 
  2. ^ Israel, Jerold H. (1963). "Gideon v. Wainwright: The ‘Art’ of Overruling". The Supreme Court Review (The University of Chicago Press) 1963: 211–272 [p. 218]. JSTOR 3108734. 
  3. ^ Israel (1963), p. 219.
  4. ^ "Gideon’s Promise, Still Unkept". The New York Times. 1993-03-18. Retrieved 2008-08-08. 
  5. ^ a b c Abel, Laura. “2006 Edward v. Sparer Symposium: Civil Gideon: Creating a Constitutional Right to Counsel in the Civil Context: A Right to Counsel in Civil Cases: Lessons from Gideon v. Wainwright.” Temple Political & Civil Rights Law Review, Volume 15. Summer 2006.
  6. ^ ——— (1964). "Waiver of the Right to Counsel in State Court Cases: The Effect of Gideon v. Wainwright". University of Chicago Law Review (The University of Chicago Law Review) 31 (3): 591–602. doi:10.2307/1598554. JSTOR 1598554. 
  7. ^ a b c d Eric Eckholm (November 8, 2008). "Citing Workload, Public Lawyers Reject New Cases". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-11-10. 

Further reading

  • ——— (2000). "Gideon's Promise Unfulfilled: The Need for Litigated Reform of Indigent Defense". Harvard Law Review (The Harvard Law Review Association) 113 (8): 2062–2079. doi:10.2307/1342319. JSTOR 1342319. 
  • Uelmen, Gerald F. (1995). "2001: A Train Ride: A Guided Tour of the Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel". Law and Contemporary Problems (Duke University School of Law) 58 (1): 13–29. doi:10.2307/1192165. JSTOR 1192165. 
  • Van Alstyne, William W. (1965). "In Gideon's Wake: Harsher Penalties and the ‘Successful’ Criminal Appellant". Yale Law Journal (The Yale Law Journal Company, Inc.) 74 (4): 606–639. doi:10.2307/794613. JSTOR 794613. 

External links

  • Text of Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963) is available from: Justia · Findlaw · LectLaw

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  • Clarence Earl Gideon — (August 30, 1910 – January 18, 1972) was a poor drifter accused in a Florida state court of felony theft. His case resulted in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright, holding that a criminal defendant who cannot afford to… …   Wikipedia

  • Louie L. Wainwright — (born 11 September 1923) was Secretary of the Florida Division of Corrections from 1962 to 1987, more than a quarter of a century.cite web url= title=Florida Department of Corrections Timeline 1962… …   Wikipedia

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